With thousands of kids headed off to college the past couple of weeks (including my own), I thought we should take another look at the rising cost of attending. Do you realize tuition costs that have risen by 1,225% since 1978? In just the past decade, tuition has risen three times as fast as the consumer-price index and twice as fast as health care. Even as enrollment numbers have waned and college grads still struggle to find jobs, prices have continued to sky-rocket. As we all know, many students will end up financing part of their higher education, but that really isn’t accounted for when we think about the true cost of college. Depending on the length of the loan and interest rate, a $10,000 tuition bill could end up easily costing close to double that by the time it’s all said and done. The average student loan debt for college graduates is $29,400, a tough pill to swallow considering that the unemployment rate for 25 to 34 year olds continues to run higher than the national average. To counter some of that debt load, more families have opted to pay tuition costs outright. In fact, the percent of college costs in 2012-2013 covered by borrowing was down to a five year low. That’s not necessarily a good thing for parents who may be opting to pay for college rather than save for retirement though. So what is behind the ballooning costs? For one, students are taking more time to get their degrees, with those entering four-year colleges spending an average of 5 ½ to graduate. Another major reason is decreased state funding for public colleges and universities. To fill the gap, schools raise tuition. Some of the bigger private colleges are experiencing a similar problem, but the income they are losing has been from donor money, rather than government funding. But again, the costs are made up by raising tuition. The other major reason is simply an increase in spending on everything from administrative costs to new state-of-the-art facilities. Those “upgrades” might not contribute much to an improved education, but they contribute plenty to college costs. The double-edged sword in this is that the way the modern job market is geared, kids can’t afford to NOT go to college. If costs keep climbing at the same pace we’ve seen in the last 30 years though, it’s worrisome to think how few people will be able to pay for it in the next 30 years. (Source: Bloomberg)
Here are a few things that we need to consider and why I’m worried the downhill trend in soybean prices will eventually come back into favor:
Total Acres: With the USDA projecting over 80 million harvested soybean acres and nearly ideal growing conditions, it’s tough to be much of anything other than bearish. Remember, the most soybean acres we have ever harvested here in the US has been 76.6 million back in 2010. The way it looks right now we may blow that number out of the water. Lets also keep in mind several analyst and agencies are already thinking US producers will plant even more soybean acres next year due to low cotton and corn prices.
Total Yield: Surprisingly we not only have record acreage but also a projected record yield. The USDA’s current estimate of 45.5 bushels per acre is well above the previous record of 44.0, but it’s still below what many believe will eventually be a 47-48 bushel per acre yield.
More Early Bushels: This might sound crazy, but with the old-crop having done a lot to help keep prices elevated I’m afraid the support is about to end. Keep in mind the top 10 growing states across the South produced a record 658 million bushels of soybeans last year and are on course to top 700 million bushels this year on the heels of a 12% jump in planted acreage and good growing conditions. While planted acreage and yield across the top 10 soybean producing states in the US have grown by around 20% since 1990, acres down South have grown by close to 100% and yields by almost 70%. In other words, we continue to see a lot more production coming from our Southern states…meaning more early bushels.
Corn Rated Good-to-Excellent” by State: MO 83% “unchanged” on the week; IL 82% up +2% on the week; PA 80%; ND 78%; TN 77% up +1%; IA & OH 75% “unchanged”; IN 73% “unchanged”; MI & SD 72%; MN 71% up +3%; CO & NE 71% up +1%; WI 68%; TX 65% “unch”; KY 59% up +1%; KS 54% down -1%
Soybean Rated Good-to-Excellent” by State: LA 84% up +2% on the week; MS 79%; IL 78% “unchanged” on the week; MO 76% down -2%; ND & TN 75% up +1%; IA 73% unchanged; OH 73% up +1%; NE 71% up +1%; SD 71%; WI & IN 69% up +2%; MN 66% up +2%; MI 63% down -1%; AR 62% down -1%; KY -58% down -1%; KS 48% down -5%
What About the Corn Basis? It feels to me like the “commercials” are having a tough time sourcing bushels. I suspect this remains the theme as we work well into harvest, with most US producers content on holding out for higher prices. My fear is what happens “post harvest”…especially when you consider most farmers are well undersold and still sitting on a larger than normal amount of old-crop supply. With what appears to be a wave or abundance of US new-crop supply eventually needing to come to market, the risk in “basis,” at least in my opinion clearly remains to the downside. I continue to believe “best-of-practice” is to lock in a large portion now (especially if your happy with the current levels in your area) rather than betting or pressing your luck on higher post harvest levels.
What About The Soybean Basis? Keep in mind the soybean basis may stay firmer longer because of the strong export programs for both beans and meal. You also have to believe the beans coming out of the field early are going to demand a bit of a premium. Point being the soybean basis and perhaps even price may stay stronger than many of the bears are currently anticipating. I’m not saying soybean prices don’t have the potential to drop below $10, because they certainly do. What I am trying to say is between now and early-fall it might be tough to break both the basis and flat price to sub-$10 levels. It’s “Dec-Jan-Feb” that has me worried. If weather cooperates in South America the media will run wild with talk of yet another NEW record year of production. Lets not forget, Brazil more than likely plants +5% to +7% more soybean acres than before. That’s also about the same time the trade will start asking what US producers plan to plant. I’m not trying to a pessimist, I’m just wanting to let folks know once we make it through this storm system another could be brewing on the horizon.
There’s a constant debate amongst investors about technique. I’m here to tell you now, you won’t be cashing any investment checks based on style points or originality of your routine. With that in mind, I encourage everyone to define in broader terms your overall objective. Similar to a golf or baseball swing, there are a million ways to approach and hit the ball, but the real professionals seem to have a similar mindset and process for making “contact.” Great “investors” are the same. The may have a million different strategies and ways they get from point-A to point-B but their mindset is somewhat similar. First off you have to remember,”investors” are much different than “traders.” Investors have a much more long-term approach. When the stock market is in a tailspin, true “investors” do NOT feel a sense of panic. In fact, true “investors” should prefer to see stock prices falling. Remember, the goal of an “investor” is long-term returns. If you really do have a long-term horizon, all that matters is what the value of your investment will be far in the future…when you plan to sell. On the other hand, if you ’re looking to sell and bank profits at some point in the near future or may soon need the money to pay bills or expenses, then you need to reclassify yourself and your objective. Multiple personality traits, bouncing between an “investor” and a “trader” , can often be a dangerous game. Investors tend to have at least a 5-10 year time horizon. Most generally, retired individuals should avoid placing themselves in the category of “investor.” The simpl e reason is, for most, they are no longer contributing to a qualified retirement plan and they simply don’t have the income or time to replace the losses if and when they occur. In other words, you shouldn’t invest money that you think you’ll need within the next few years. Second, you need to think like an investor. This can be surprisingly hard, because financial news outlets often cater to Wall Street professionals who are not investors but rather “traders” who are constantly buying and selling stocks. Bottom-line, unless you’re close to retirement, it’s often best to play the game as an “investor”… looking for opportunities to “buy” rather than opportunities to “sell.”You should be putting money into the market in the near-term, not selling. If you commit to a long-term investing strategy and maintain a long-term investor’s perspective, you literally have to believe lower stock prices near-term are better. If you find yourself worrying excessively about your “investments”, you need to change your mind-set and come to the realization you are a probably a “trader”…this then becomes an entirely different and more difficult game.
- Weather – Could the weather have been much better over the weekend for the majority of the corn belt? When was the last time you can remember 75 degree weather with good rainfall in mid-August? I just find it increasingly hard to locate a bullish weather headline that has enough power to change the overall longer-term bearish momentum.
- USDA – With the August report behind us the trade really won’t have much to focus on until the end of Septembers Quarterly Stocks report.
- Supply – As of right now the trade is under the impression supplies are going to continue working themselves higher…both domestically and globally. Here at home there is good reason to believe ending stocks are eventually going to push to between 2.0 and 2.2 billion bushels. As long as the trade seems to think supplies are moving higher its tough to mount much of a sustained bullish rally. There is still some very important “finishing weather” that needs to play itself out, and as long as the crop is still in the field there is room for doubt and question.
- Demand – As supplies continue to grow, “demand” appears to be strong. I suspect both ethanol and feed usage will keep chewing through the bushels. But I’m a little concerned the banning of US DDGs into China might cause the USDA to pull back their feed usage estimate just a touch int he coming reports. And like many in the trade, I’m also a bit nervous about total corn exports. I’m not expecting or predicting a major setback, I’m just not sure we will be able to grow and or gain market share like we currently have forecast. There are just too many global players, and with the glut of feed wheat now in Europe, its changed some of the dynamics. In other words more cheap corn will now be available from Ukraine.
- Funds – The funds seem to currently be in a state of limbo. Taking more of a “wait-and-see” approach towards crop production and final finishing weather. Keep in mind however they are still net long somewhere between +75,000 and +100,000 contracts. If they were to exit and start to build a net-short position they could end up pushing prices much lower than they currently are. That’s why I’m worried and concerned new-crop corn prices could eventually fall to between $2.85 and $3.10. It doesn’t really have anything to do with longer-term price, supply or demand, just simply “money-flow” pushing us to an extreme level as it changes and shifts positions.
- Technical Picture – Many of the “tech” guru’s have turned a bit less bearish the past several days. In fact, Friday’s posted close created what some call a bullish key reversal on the weekly charts. I’m not saying the “technical” picture is wildly bullish by any means, but I am telling you many of the “tech” players are looking at a more optimistic picture.
- Large On Farm Supplies – There’s no question that farmers are holding more old-crop supplies than ever before. The question is what happens once the new-crop arrives and bins are full? This glut of on farm storage is somewhat our a Achilles heel right now, as I suspect it keeps a lid on the rallies.
- Basis – Commercial’s appear to be a bit short on what they wanted to have purchased at this point and from where I sit it’s keeping the basis stronger than most in the trade had imagined. You have to believe the ethanol and feed user are helping to keep the bids supported. My hunch is the commercials will keep ridding up the nearby basis until they build up adequate supplies then I expect they will aggressively start to backpedal. That’s why I have been saying to pay close attention to the “basis” in your specific area. If you like what is being offered then lock it in…I think the risk is clearly to the downside once we start to move deeper into harvest.
- Dryness in China – There’s definitely some drought concerns in China. Initial estimates are that between 3-4 million acres have been effected and that total corn production could fall by 3-5 MMTs. So instead of another NEW record corn crop this year in China, talks are that production will be at or around last years record level. From what I’m hearing the northern province of Liaoning is suffering the worst drought in over 60 years. Other corn and wheat producing regions have also suffered under the drought, including the northern provinces of Inner Mongolia, Jilin, and central Henan province. There is some talk that soybean and barley production could also suffer some setbacks. Lets also remind ourselves that there is a good supply of cattle up in these areas that are going without water as well. Rice should be fine since it’s produced mainly in southern China. Bottom-line, keep the Chinese weather problems on your radar. As of right now its still NOT a huge deal, especially when you consider China is on the cusp of having to export corn to reduce government surplus.
- Ukraine/Russia Geopolitical Tension – Certainly the recent geopolitical tensions in the Black Sea region have had a short-term positive impact on the corn market. As tensions flare the wheat market stays a bit more nervous than it should and in turn some additional corn premium is added. As of this morning, it appears the situation has calmed to some degree from when we left the trade this past Friday. The problem is with Putin involved and seeming somewhat desperate, I’m not sure the situation is entirely behind us…Stay tuned! I’m thinking any major blow-up in this region could provide us with our next opportunity to reduce more longer-term price risk.
- FSA Acres – As I wrote pre-market opening on Friday, be extremely careful jumping on the bullish bandwagon regarding the FSA acreage data! From my perspective there is very little correlation between this years FSA data and the acreage info the USDA provides the trade. Keep in mind the “Preventive Plant” acres were down substantially from last year. I realize there are some analyst and so called experts out there talking about a reduction in acres, just be extremely cautious when listening to this rhetoric. I’m telling you now there’s actually some very smart players inside the trade who are thinking jus the opposite. They believe there is a glut of “late certified” acres that still need to be processed, ultimately meaning acres could move higher…NOT lower. You need to remember there were a lot of FSA offices that recently went through personnel cuts and reductions in staff, I’ve heard many places have just started getting data entered. All I’m trying to say is be careful with these early numbers. My guess is the USDA does nothing to the planted or harvested acreage numbers until the October 10th USDA report.
I came across an interesting article discussing how low cash rents could drop with $3.25 corn. It’s a great question, and one I constantly hear when out on the road. The author of this article Mark Gannon, astutely states in his summary that economics always have a way of working things out. And that “working itself out” is exactly what might happen in the foreseeable future. It’s a difficult situation when you drop the price of any commodity -50% in just 36-months, including a -25% since August 2013. Looking back at the forward contract price for corn at harvest, August 1, 2013 we were at $4.30 per bushel; August 1, 2012 we were at $7.59 per bushel; August 1, 2011 we were at $6.50 per bushel. We all understand, there is a lot of variation when it comes to crop prices. The argument being made is that land owners have to STOP basing their rental price decisions exclusively on “price.” Instead rental agreements should be based more around total farm income. It’s important to keep in mind that “price” is only one factor in determining profitability. Gross income is the main consideration which is a combination of price and yield. It may seem elementary, but Gannon describes a problem that he sees far too often. Landowners don’t have very good, current or accurate yield data on their land to figure gross income. They may not admit it, but there are landowners out there who could be getting 220 bushel an acre type cash rents but are only getting 160 bushel acre rent because they don’t have accurate up to date data. Gannon is convinced moving forward there has to become a better free flow of information and honest record keeping between tenants and landlords. This way, both the tenant and the landlord are making a fair long term business arrangement. He’s also convinced (and I tend to agree with him) that the future of farm leases are more flex-based cash rents. With open communication and incentives to get the best harvest possible, everybody wins! In the end, this seems to be the only real answer you can give to how low farm leases with drop. The best solution is roll with the market punches and make sure you are keeping good records and implementing more flexible type rents. For more from information on farm leasing and Mark Gannon, click HERE.
USDA Weekly Corn Crop Conditions: The USDA lowered US corn crop conditions by -1%, from 73% down to 72% rated “Good-to-Excellent.” Keep in mind this compares to just 61% of the crop rated GD/EX last year and just 56% rated GD/EX according to the 5-year average. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact the Poor-to-Very Poor category is still only 8% vs. our 5-year average of 20% rated P/VP at this stage. Interestingly condition ratings fell in four major production states of IL & MN -2%, IA & NE -1%. Condition ratings however are still much better than last year for the states of IA, IL & MO, overall a bit worse than last year for IN & OH. Some additional data shows 70% of the crop was reported “Doughing” vs. 54% a week ago vs. 63% 5-year average. 22% of the crop was reported “Dented” vs. 11% a week ago vs. 27% 5-year average. As you look at the graphic below, keep in mind 2004 and 2009 were the years of NEW record US corn crop production.
USDA Weekly Soybean Crop Conditions: The USDA raised its US soybean crop conditions by +1%, from 70% up to 71% rated “Good-to-Excellent.” As you can see from the graphic below this is clearly the best we have seen in several years and looking back even further we have found this to be the second best rating ever for this time of year. The “Poor-to-Very Poor” rating was just 6% this week compared to our more traditional 5-year average of 17% for this time of year. Conditions in IA, MN, KS and the Dakota’s fell. Additional data now shows 95% of the crop was reported “Blooming” vs. 92% a week ago vs. 95% 5-year average. 83% of the crop reported “Setting Pods” vs. 72% last week vs. 79% 5-year avg.
Results of 2014 Pro Farmer Midwest Crop Tour: Scouts gathered data form Iowa and Minnesota yesterday. As expected Iowa came in well ahead of last year’s estimate while Minnesota proved to be a bit of a disappointment for corn. I am told FINAL corn and soybean numbers are scheduled for release today. Below are yesterday’s findings along with the current running tally:
- Minnesota (Thursday) corn yield reported at 170.76 bpa vs. 181.09 bpa last year vs. 3-year average of 171.07 bpa. Soybeans showed a pod count in a 3’-by-3’ square of 1031.54 vs 869.42 last year vs. the 3-year average of 975.99.
- Iowa (Wed/Thurs) corn yield reported at 178.75 bpa vs. 171.94 bpa last year vs. 3-year average of 157.94 bpa. Soybeans showed a pod count in a 3’-by-3’ square of 1173.59 vs. 927.3 last year vs. the 3-year average of 1149.68.
- Illinois (Wednesday) corn yield reported at 196.96 bpa vs. the 170.48 bpa estimate last year vs. the 3-year average of 149.36 bpa. Soybeans showed a pod count in a 3’-by-3’ square of 1,299.17 vs. the 3-year average of 1,085.35 and last years estimate of just 1,115.97.
- Nebraska (Tuesday) corn yield reported at 163.77 bpa vs. 154.93 bpa last year vs. 3-year average of 146.81 bpa. Soybeans showed a pod count in a 3’-by-3’ square of 1,103.36 vs 1,138.94 last year vs. the 3-year average of 1,106.62.
- Indiana (Tuesday) corn yield reported at 185.03 bpa vs. 167.36 bpa last year vs. 3-year average of 141.24 bpa. Soybeans showed a pod count in a 3’-by-3’ square of 1,220.79 vs. 1,185.14 last year vs. the 3-year average of 1,118.65.
- Ohio (Monday) corn yield estimated at 182.11 bpa vs. 171.64 bpa last year vs. the 3-year average of 146.43 bpa. Soybean count at 1,342.24 pods in 3’-by-3’ square vs. 1,283.61 last year vs. the 3-year average of 1190.18 pods.
- South Dakota (Monday) corn yield reported at 152.71 bpa vs. 161.75 bpa last year vs. 3-year average of 125.70. Soybeans count at 1057.8 in a 3’-by-3’ square vs. 1,016.68 last year vs. the 3-year average is at 902.76.
A Deeper Look Inside The 2014 Pro Farmer Midwest Crop Tour: Our good friends over at Pro Farmer are going to be kicking off their highly anticipated and heavily monitored “2014 Midwest Crop Tour” this next week. Our buddy Chip Flory will be heading up the Western leg of the tour and Brian Grete will be leading the Eastern leg of the tour. Since social media has become such a driving force in the market, I felt it was important to play this out a bit. Below are my thoughts and a few inside details:
My Thoughts Regarding “The Western Leg of the Tour”
- Sunday participants gather in Sioux Falls, SD to begin the tour.
- Day #1 – Monday the tour heads from Sioux Falls, SD southwest o Grand Island, NE. I’m thinking the tour won’t start far enough east to see much of the major flooding and won’t go far enough west to see much of the hail damage on Day #1. This might leave the bulls a bit disappointed as the Tour tweets about record yields in various locations. The nightly meeting will be held at Grand Island, NE Riverside Golf Club, 2820 Riverside Dr. Grand Island, NE 6880
- Day #2 – Tuesday the tour heads from Grand Island, NE southeast to Nebraska City, NE. I’m thinking this might end up being the most promising leg of the Western tour, not far enough north to see the hail and storm damage, and not far enough west to see the non-irrigated dry land problems. Hence there could be some mammoth irrigated yield numbers being tweeted and talked about. The nightly meeting will be held at Arbor Day Farm/Lied Conf. Ctr 2700 Sylvan Rd Nebraska, City, NE 68410
- Day #3 – Wednesday the tour heads from Nebraska City, NE northeast to Spencer, IA – This part of the tour could go either way just depending on the various samplings. You could start to see some flood, high wind and hail damage in NE and once you get up towards Spencer, IA there might be some disappointment as well. There are some areas up in northwestern IA that have taken a bit off the top-end because of conditions being a little dry. My point is, some folks might be looking for huge record yields during this leg of the tour, but I bet when you add it all up its not overly impressive. Could be some disappointment. The nightly meeting will be held at Clay County Events Ctr, 800 West 18th St. Spencer, IA 51301
- Final Day #4 – Thursday the tour heads from Spencer, IA northeast to Rochester, MN – I’m thinking the crop is going to look fairly good but well behind schedule. There are some talks many parts of MN might not see corn black layer until early to mid-Oct. The problem with that is they generally tend to see a freeze by mid to late-Sept. Might cap the top-end. The nightly meeting will be held at Rochester Event Center, 7333 Airport View Dr. SW Rochester, MN 55902
My Thoughts Regarding “The Eastern Leg of the Tour”
- Sunday participants gather in Columbus, OH to begin the tour.
- Day #1 – Monday the tour heads from Columbus, OH southwest to Fishers, IN. Crops should look really good and I expect some big numbers. There could be a few fields early in the day that aren’t as strong, but I suspect as tour participants start moving towards IN there will be some impressive numbers. The recent rains should have helped, but seems to be hit or miss depending on if your north or south of !-70. The nightly meeting will be held at Fishers Conference Center, 9775 North by Northeast Blvd Fishers, IN 46037
Day #2 – Tuesday the tour heads from Fishers, IN west to Bloomington, IL. Just like the “Western Leg of the Tour,” I’m thinking Day #2 could produce some of the largest percentage gains for fields in comparison to their historical yields. I’m thinking we might see the “300 bushel” term thrown around some. The nightly meeting will be held at Doubletree Hotel & Conf. Ctr 10 Brickyard Dr., Bloomington, IL 61701
Day #3 – Wednesday the tour heads from Bloomington, IL north west to Iowa City, IA. this also could be a big day. Obviously, almost anytime your going from IL into IA your going to see some big numbers. I’m just not thinking they are going to be as “surprisingly” high as they were in Day #2. Don’t get me wrong I’m still looking for big, big numbers, I just think these have already been a bit televised. The nightly meeting will be held at Marriott Coralville Hotel 300 East 9th St Coralville, IA 52241
- Final Day #4 – Thursday the tour heads north from Iowa City, IA to Rochester, MN – Similar to the Western leg of the Tour, I’m thinking the crop could look good but a bit behind schedule. The nightly meeting will be held at Rochester Event Center, 7333 Airport View Dr. SW Rochester, MN 55902
Putting it ALL Together… From where I sit, Day #2 (Tuesday) and perhaps early in Day #3 (Wednesday) look as if they could provide the trade with the most dangerous bearish headlines. The beginning of Day #1 and the majority of the Final Day #4 (as the tour moves from IA into MN) may end up being a bit of a disappoint. This final leg this years might show some extreme variability amongst fields, but overall one that is MUCH later developing (some areas 30-days behind). Remember the Western Leg will be in NW Iowa during the second half of Day # 3 and the first part of Day #4. This is where producers got a ton of rain in June then the spigot shutoff until just recently. This means the fields where producers put ALL the nitrogen on before the corn came up are going to be much worse than the fields where producers waited to apply half the nitrogen after the corn came up. Similar type story for Day #4 on the Eastern Leg of the Tour. My hunch is they see more extreme variability as some areas in NE Iowa have been much drier than normal. My fear is that tour participants, after rolling out of the bin busting areas during Day #2 and parts of Day #3, may feel a bit of a let down or disappointment into the final home stretch. If these assumptions are correct, you might see the market pressured as we digest the big social media data Day #2 and into Day #3, then bounce a bit after the final numbers are released and some of the shorts decide to cover. In fact, if we get some major downside pressure I might even start peeling off a few of our longer-term hedges that we have been parked in for downside protection. Bottom-line, I’m still thinking a national yield right around 170 makes the most sense. The guys who are talking 175 plus still seem a bit too high for me. My contention is to get the US average yield at or north of 175, you will need to see the #1 corn producing state of Iowa averaging closer to 200 bushels per acre. Right now the USDA has them pegged about right at around 185-187 bushels per acre, which I believe is close. There are some areas that could struggle moving forward without a steady stream of additional moisture. In fact I see no way the areas in NE Iowa will harvest the record yields they recorded last year. Hence I’m not thinking Iowa really blows it out of the water. The state of Illinois is obviously very good right now (especially in Central Illinois), but since the state runs more north to south there is a much larger variable in soil types and conditions. My fear is some of the southern areas are not having the same bin busting record crops like the guys in the central part of the state. There are also a few other pocket areas that the Tour won’t be getting into that are less than ideal. Moral of the story, yes the USDA may still need to push yields higher, but I’m not so sure we get much over 170 once the dust settles and the smoke clears. In fact I’m starting to think we are going to need really good finishing weather to pull of the 170-172 type yield that so many are currently trading. Any wrinkles in the sheets and I’m thinking the yield is less. Does this mean we have reached a bottom in price? I doubt it, but it does mean we might be close to hearing or seeing the highest yield estimates of the season already revealed. *If you plan on attending the nightly meetings, just remember the reception generally starts around 5:30pm; Dinner at around 6:30pm; and the Tour presentations will start around 7:15pm (hoping to end around 9:00pm).